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Going Back to Square One

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor thinks “that being a lawyer is one of the best jobs in the whole wide world.” After first seeing a snippet about the interview where she said that, this is what I took from her reasoning:

Because every lawyer, no matter whom they represent, is trying to help someone … lawyering is the height of service — and being involved in this profession is a gift. Any lawyer who is unhappy should go back to square one and start again.

I was impressed. This is a person who holds a spot on the highest court in the land? A member of that esteemed panel of men and women who are typically unconcerned with the little guy while they make law from the shiniest ivory tower anywhere? A fresh face with a new attitude joining those power-loving, rubber-stamping legal minds capable of justifying whatever power grab happens to align with their political beliefs? Yes, please! How wonderful! What a refreshing change!

Our Supreme Court decided in its last term that a “police activity sheet” containing a photo of a man shown to two people who were at the bar during the robbery central to the case, a man named as a co-defendant by the state attorneys and with a record of over a dozen armed robberies of bars who was already in custody at the time of trial on other charges, wasn’t necessarily worth disclosing by the state. The sheet also contained a statement from a buddy of the defendant who took the stand against him. The state never notified the defense of the document or provided it to them, nor did it ever mention that the other known armed robber had ever been investigated or had his photo shown to a witness. Maybe the defense attorneys could have argued that someone other than the defendant committed the armed robbery or that there were more people involved, right? The court didn’t really fix the problem at all, instead sending it back with a pro-state caveat that “[a]ny retrial here would take place three decades after the crime, posing the most daunting difficulties for the prosecution. That burden should not be imposed unless each ground supporting the state court decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under AEDPA.” The opinion is Wetzel v. Lambert, and it’ll make any authoritarian’s heart swell, guaranteed.

At least she dissented when the same court decided that, without causing any double jeopardy problems, a defendant can be tried again on some charges even though the jury in his first trial unanimously agreed that he was not guilty of them. In Blueford v. Arkansas, the court looked at the situation where a jury could not agree on the other charges in the case and the judge declared a mistrial that required the defendant face a second trial on all charges.

But she couldn’t have been that concerned about things when the court later reversed a lower court decision setting aside two murder convictions. The message I got from Parker v. Matthews was that federal habeas corpus review isn’t the right way to question the decisions of state courts even when they’re worth questioning. I suppose we shouldn’t be questioning our overlords in the first place.

The Supremes love authority, that’s for sure, and Sotomayor was even touted for her authoritarianism during the nomination process. She’s about the best there is right now for the rights of criminal defendants, but not as good as the quote would suggest. What gives with the quote then?

Well, it turns out I got the quote wrong. Here’s the real reason why being a lawyer is the bestestest thing in the whole wide world to her:

Because every lawyer, no matter whom they represent, is trying to help someone, whether it’s a person, a corporation, a government entity, or a small or big business. To me, lawyering is the height of service—and being involved in this profession is a gift. Any lawyer who is unhappy should go back to square one and start again.

So lawyering is helping. Got it. Sadly, that approach applies equally to everything someone could conceivably do with his or her time, good or bad. The worst people who’ve ever lived were surely helping themselves, even at their worst. All of the great Ponzi scheme creators were helping their businesses, and there’s never lived an evil dictator who wasn’t helping some government entity in some way. Sotomayor’s quote is so remarkably vague that it doesn’t really say much at all.

What I take from the interview is that she likes working in the law because she’s doing something. Who on earth could be opposed to doing something? Heck, I think it’s important to do something. Three cheers for Sotomayor! The real message is that Sotomayor is a master of saying things that appear deep and inspirational and mean whatever she wants them to mean. Given the current state of things, that’s probably just the thing a Supreme Court Justice needs to do.

Like I mentioned above, she’s actually been pretty good. In fact, I dare say she’s been great compared to most justices. I only hope the message I mistakenly took from her interview is the message she meant. We need someone who is willing to go back to real square one; not the square one that makes scholars honor her insightful encroachment on individual rights years after she’s forgotten by everyone else, but the square one that helps all of those little someones who really need help. That’s the kind of square one that makes lawyering the best.

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